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MEN'S HOCKEY: WCHA flexing its muscle

As the Western Collegiate Hockey Association got hammered with early departures for the second summer in a row, it was time to start wondering. Are these NHL signings going to finally catch up to the league that's dominated college hockey for a h...

As the Western Collegiate Hockey Association got hammered with early departures for the second summer in a row, it was time to start wondering.

Are these NHL signings going to finally catch up to the league that's dominated college hockey for a half decade?

A few weeks into the 2007-08 season, the answer is surprisingly clear: the WCHA is more dominant than ever.

It has shrugged off the loss of big-time players, reloaded with impact freshmen and continued to mop up in nonconference play. In fact, its nonconference record to this point, 20-5-4, is significantly better than any nonconference record the league has posted during its recent period of dominance.

Eight of the league's 10 teams are ranked in the national poll with five of them - UND, Denver, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado College - landing a spot in the top 10.


"That's a heck of an accomplishment for how young the WCHA is as a whole," UND coach Dave Hakstol said. "The number of underclassmen that have moved on early in the last five years is a pretty staggering number. Still, to come back the first month of the season and be very dominant on a nonconference basis speaks to the quality of the conference from top to bottom."

The WCHA's recent dominance can be illustrated through the country's biggest prizes, the national championship and Hobey Baker Memorial Award. Five of the last six national champions have come from the league and every Hobey Baker winner since 2001 has been a WCHA player.

A look into nonconference records provides more evidence. The league is 248-112-43 since 2002-03 and only once in that span has another conference posted a winning record against the WCHA. That happened last season, when Hockey East went 9-8-1.

Big losses

don't hurt

Early departures seemed to threaten the WCHA's stranglehold on national power, though.

The league has lost a record 33 players early to the NHL in the last two summers. No other league has lost even half of that. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association has seen 14 guys leave early, Hockey East six, the Eastern College Athletic Conference six and Hockey Atlantic three during that period.

Not that it's mattered on the ice.


"I'm sure there are a lot of factors involved," Hakstol said of reasons behind the league's success. "It starts with the programs in the WCHA. From top to bottom, all of the schools made a pretty large investment in hockey. Each school takes a lot of pride in their hockey programs doing well and winning games.

"Some of it is cyclical as well with the different areas of the country being stronger in player development from year to year."

It starts with recruiting.

There's no question that the WCHA has been able to grab the top prospects. In the last five drafts, the WCHA has seen 23 of its players go in the first round compared to 10 for the CCHA, six for Hockey East and three for the ECAC.

Before the season, Hakstol predicted that the crop of rookies in the WCHA would once again be impressive and help the WCHA offset the NHL signings. They certainly haven't disappointed to this point as Wisconsin freshman Kyle Turris leads the country in scoring.

League benefits

The league benefits from the success of its peers in nonconference play when it comes to the NCAA tournament.

The stronger the league's nonconference record, the more WCHA teams wind up in the national tournament. That's because it boosts the strength of schedule for all teams, giving them a stronger RPI rating - a key component of the selection process.


"We want our teams to do well when going against other leagues," Hakstol said. "It certainly plays a factor (in NCAA selection time). The bottom line is that we take a lot of pride in it."

At the same time, it means WCHA teams don't have any easy weekends. But Hakstol said that helps teams prepare for the national tournament, because they are prepared to play night in and night out.

"If there is any negative, maybe it's the physical battle you go through during the year," he said. "That can wear on you. But we only play 34, 35, 36 games a year, so that really shouldn't be a factor.

"One of our players made a comment after we lost Friday night - a game we felt like we played pretty well and came up on the short end. He said it's a good reminder of how hard it is to get wins in the WCHA on a nightly basis. It sure feels like you're playing a top team week in and week out."

Reach Schlossman at 780-1129, (800) 477-6572 ext. 129 or bschlossman@gfherald.com .

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